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Imagine a new mindset: the policy designer

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: News, Policy Lab, Thought Pieces

Why small, creative, design thinking teams are important for the civil service of the future.

For the past 9 months I’ve been working in Policy Lab as part designer and part policy maker. As a Fast Streamer, my nine months in Lab have given me more insight and knowledge into design and government than I could have possibly imagined - it’s an experience I will forever cherish and be incredibly grateful for.

However I'm leaving both Policy Lab and the Civil Service this week to join Deloitte Digital and continue my design evangelising in the private sector. But I know that I’m leaving a team and movement that is really changing the civil service for the better.

To put it simply; I think the Policy Lab mindset promises to radically change policy-making for the better. From its culture, to its people and its ways of working; I think it offers a glimpse of how the civil service might look in 10 or 20 years. And here's why:

The mindset
Perhaps the biggest change you notice when working in or with the Policy Lab is its design mindset. This isn’t a mindset that focuses on shiny finishes, colour choices or ‘cool designs’, but one that is excited and passionate about really getting underneath a problem, understanding it, and fixing it.

It’s a mindset that not only focuses on quantitative measurements of success - things like data science and number crunching - but puts enormous effort into qualitative (emotional and human) ways of measuring good ideas and policy. Ethnography and prototyping are examples of this humanistic approach that Lab uses. It’s an approach that not only helps us understand what is happening, but helps us to put ourselves in user’s shoes and explain why things are happening. It’s a mindset that knows that trying things out early not only spots errors before they become costly, but also reduces waste by building services around the strengths that people already have, maximising the resource that is out there.

And by putting people at the centre of all policy, the Policy Lab is helping make better policy. One of the ideas from our Work & Health project with the DWP & Department of Health is a book that helps people to think about their physical and mental health needs at work; our homelessness project with DCLG is looking at how we answer the needs of homeless people and prevent them becoming homeless in the first place, and our future of rail project with DfT is designing a rail experience that works for everyone -  from those who use trains every day to get to work to those that do so only occasionally to see family. The Policy Lab mindset makes better policy for both government and the user by being empathetic and responsive to needs and people.

The health and work book is an example of prototyping policy until it's right.
The health and work book is an example of prototyping policy until it's right.

The people
The mindset that Lab exhibits is built entirely on its people. And I can honestly say that in my time working in the Civil Service, the people in and around Lab are the most optimistic, empathetic, innovative and inspirational I have met. Each person brought an individual talent; policy-making, ethnography, graphic design, design tools and data science to name a few. But this isn’t just the people in Lab itself - it’s the amazing civil servants that work and learn with Lab from across government. Lab brings these diverse talents and experiences together, and works with them to push projects forward. The digital world would call this a multi-disciplinary team, others a design team. But, whatever you call it, it's a great example of the future civil service; small, empowered, accountable and diversely talented teams that work together to make policy and government better for the user.

The ways of working

And then there's the way of working; agile, fast paced, iterative and repetitive. It's a totally new way of working for many people, and one that I know takes some getting used too, but from my experience it works.  By using a design approach that constantly re-evaluates the problem, the needs and the answers, we can help everyone involved understand the true problem they face, and begin to see what government might need to do to fix that problem.

Iterative, creative and talented; the future of the civil service.
Iterative, creative and talented; the future of the civil service.

But this future doesn’t happen on its own; it needs bold thinking and energetic engagement. Because Policy Lab only works and thrives because it collaborates with civil servants from across government; helping others deliver their policies in the most effective way.  

What does the civil servant of the future look like? There are many qualities, but across the projects I worked on I think it requires a civil servant who has an open mind; the civil servant who has a curious and inquisitive attitude; the civil servant that wants to try something new and make government even better. It’s the civil servant who is impatient about the problem, but patient about the solution, and knows that the process of getting it right is sometimes slow and complex - but always worth it. But most importantly, it’s the civil servant that wants to be the change that Jeremy Heywood talks about. The civil servant that lets us enter their world and work together to help them cut through the clutter of government and get to the bottom of the problem.

If we are to create a better future, where this kind of mindset will flourish, we will need to change. We need to ensure our measures reflect the human qualities of a policy we create - the improvement that people see in their lives - as well as those that create better value for money for taxpayers.  We will need more policy-makers to be willing to share their problems, and allow us to learn together about how we apply new ideas and ways of working in real policy problems. We’ll need to create an environment of trust, that openly embraces the risks - and learning - associated with innovation.

And we’ll also need a blend of humility and curiosity, acknowledging that we might not have all the answers, but knowing that an open, inquiring mind can lead us to new amazing new insights, new ideas, new approaches and new understandings of the problem and solution. And despite increasing pressure to deliver complex policies in tight timescales we will need to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions.  In Lab we found that testing new things in practice is an investment worth making - it reveals things that might not work and gives us the confidence to proceed and make truly innovative and incredible policy.

And finally we will need the determination to put good ideas into practice, which involves significant energy, commitment, courage and a can-do attitude. This means being willing to spend the time going back and improving, iterating, learning and obsessively making policy better, over and over again, until it makes government better. Better for the civil service, and better for people.

That’s what I learnt in my time in Policy Lab, and that’s why I think it matters now more than ever. If you are interested in working with Lab, like me you could spend time building new skills and knowledge on the job, or if you just fancy a coffee and hearing about the latest thinking in policy innovation why not email them at

Or follow my new adventures at Deloitte digital on twitter @laurencegrinyer  

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  1. Comment by Lisa Ollerhead posted on

    This is a really interesting and exciting summary of what you've learned! All the best for Deloitte :).

  2. Comment by Julian Harris (Head of Innovation) posted on

    Brilliant piece, inspiring. You're right about timeframes: I wonder what incentives could be put in place to accelerate them?


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